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Andrew Penny, May 19 2020

Working Remotely or Remotely Working?

In 1840 70% of the North American workforce worked on farms. There the work was pretty straightforward and relatively easy to manage – the manure got shovelled or it didn’t. The hierarchy was fairly flat – those with the shovel and those without. The industrial revolution saw work start to migrate away from the farms and into the factories where a new system was needed to coordinate the productivity of the hundreds of workers in the factory and, again, the cotton was weaved or it wasn’t.

The only system around for managing these vast armies of people was, well, from the military. Where great minds, who often inherited their power, espoused Tennyson’s famous lines:

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

So while things have got considerably better over the last few years with ’enlightened’ management practices a command and control mentality is still very much alive.

No matter where I go in the world, I’ve found that people are good. They are helpful, honest and trusting. They want to do the right thing. Interestingly employees are people too. And given the right information, they also want to do the right thing.

The Pandemic is a little bit like an earthquake. No wait, hear me out. You see an earthquake happens when the pressure between tectonic plates builds up and eventually readjusts. Business structure and the way people want to work has been at odds for some time. Put your hand up if you love the morning commute every day, enjoy not seeing your kids, thrive on red eyes and transcontinental travel… It turns out that the Pandemic has shown us that many of us don’t, in fact, have to do any of this. And most business gets done just fine. So this ‘earthquake’ has normalized remote working.

If this remote work thing is going to be at least part of the new normal we need to figure out how to lead our people to make sure that the right things are being done the right way. So how do we make sure they know what the right thing is – particularly when you are not there to ask?

TRUST: It starts with trust. If you don’t trust your staff / team member / employee you have a problem that needs addressing. (And the problem may be the mirror).

PURPOSE: In the hierarchy of ‘doing the right thing’ your team needs to know what your company’s core purpose is. What is the “Steve Jobs-sized dent” you are making in the universe? This is their higher calling, their motivation when things get tough, their North Star when they need to make decisions without all the information or authority. One of our engineering clients states it quite simply as “Protecting People’s Buildings”.

VALUES: They also need to know what values your company holds. Not meaningless bland universal values but ones that make your company what it is. The Ritz-Carlton does a great job of this. The Harvard Business Review breaks them down into Core values, Aspirational values, Permission to play values and Accidental values (a good short read). As a vice president of Bell Mobility, I had an equipment failure on a rooftop antenna. The technician carried the 80-pound replacement up 12 stories on a weekend to get the system up again. We made a hero of him and instilled one of the values that made the company so successful.

STRATEGY: Next is your strategy. What is the objective – where do you want your team to go when you are not there to guide them step by step? Grow international sales? Launch the new plant by year-end? Reduce costs in the new product line by 10%? Sure, some information needs to be kept confidential - but much less than you might think. (Want to talk Strategy?)

Summing up:

Many valuable employees are seeing the benefits of remote work and really enjoy the ability to work from home. They used to say, "How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they've seen Gay Paree".

Today we might ask "How are you going to keep them in the office once they've seen gay chez-soi? "


For another dimension on leadership during COVID19 read my colleague Graham’s post on caring for your team's well being.


If you are planning your COVID 19 rebound, you may want to have a look at the 5-Step Rebound Plan. Not for everyone, but great for companies who want to invent their own futures. Let me know if you’d like to chat.

Written by

Andrew Penny


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